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Taking Comics Back to the Drawing Board

Just like Charlie Brown would do when he bumbled a baseball play, funnies fans looking for something fresh in the newspaper might yell "Rats!"

A debate is brewing over the current state and future of the funnies.

Some pop culture experts and cartoonists warn that the comic strip is a dying art form because the antiquated ones like Blondie, Beetle Bailey, Peanuts, Dick Tracy and Hagar the Horrible are given most of the space on newspaper pages.

"There's been a real creative stagnation for the past decade," said Coury Turczyn, editor of PopCult, an online popular culture magazine. "The system as it stands rewards old and rather outdated comic strips as opposed to seeking out new talent."

Newspaper editors and syndicates agree the field is competitive, but say they do make room for new strips each year.

"We do experiment with some strips," said Mi-Ai Parrish, deputy managing editor of arts and features at The San Francisco Chronicle. She said about 60 percent of the paper's comic strips are modern including Get Fuzzy, Mutts, The Boondocks and Baby Blues  and 40 percent are vintage.

"Newspapers are running the strips people want to read," she said. "Even if they're older or the artist is dead or they don't seem as relevant, they are still really popular."

For a cartoonist to be successful, he or she has to have the strip syndicated by King Features, United Media or one of the other majors in the industry. Then, newspapers have to buy and publish it.

Jay Kennedy, editor-in-chief at King Features, said that because of the time it takes syndicate salespeople to make in-person pitches to the 1,550 daily newspapers in the country, King only takes on two or three new strips a year of the more than 6,000 annual submissions.

"It is difficult for cartoonists to break into syndication," he said. "But contrary to popular understanding, there's more new product being pitched now than 30 years ago. In that regard, there are more opportunities for new cartoonists."

Still, artists like New Yorker Dan Killeen, who recently submitted his third strip, The Life of Steve to syndicates, say it's incredibly tough to get noticed and even tougher to get marketed or published.

"It is frustrating," said Killeen, 31, who has been at it for nearly a decade. "I'm not counting on it paying my rent. I blame papers and syndicates. They want to go with what is safe and what they know will sell."

Experts cite the increased cost of paper, the downsizing of newspapers and the economic recession as factors that led to the funnies cutbacks.

"There's a finite amount of space to run comic strips less now than 50 years ago," Kennedy said. "There are fewer two-paper cities and a lot of papers have shrunk their page size."

That translates into a double whammy for up-and-coming talent, according to Turczyn.

"You have two strikes against you: editors who don't want to take a risk by putting in something new and syndicates who are happy making money off old comic strips that have been around for decades," he said.

Editors admit that profit is a factor, but believe it's hypocritical for others to point the finger at them on that issue.

"There is a bottom-line component," Parrish said. "But artists have a bottom-line component too."

Plus, readers are fussy about funnies, she said. "Some people buy papers for the comics. Whenever you change them, it's an enormous controversy. People are very attached to their comics."

Others believe nostalgia is killing the art.

"It's kind of demoralizing for a young cartoonist to see that even after a [veteran] cartoonist dies, they keep running his old strips," said Turczyn. "It's one of America's original art forms; newspaper editors and syndicates are slowly strangling it."

Still, aspiring artists shouldn't give up hope. Strips like the four-year-old Zits have done extremely well, and others in their infancy are gaining recognition.

"New strips can succeed," Kennedy said. "The new cartoonists just have to be that much better."